Archive for United Artists

A Night Without Casablanca

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2017 by dcairns

I wrote a little about this one years back (has it been years?) and so left it to nearly the end of my Marxian odyssey this time (for late-comers, I’m writing about those aspects of the Marx Bros films excluding the Marx Bros — what are usually considered the bad bits).

A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA sees the three remaining Bros at United Artists, in 1946, in a largely studio-bound version of North Africa. Plot revolves around Nazi gold and art treasures, then I imagine quite a new McGuffin. It’s probably sensible that the Marx films skipped the war years altogether (if one considers WWII from an American perspective) and refer to the Third Reich fairly obliquely here.

The film is deftly directed by Archie Mayo, with a surprising amount of fluid camera movement. It’s questionable whether a Marx Bros film NEEDS fluid camera movement, but it’s getting it regardless. And despite the limited budget keeping us in a hotel for most of the plot (when the boys escape jail and steal a plane, they crash right back into the jail again, thus saving on further sets) it looks pretty good.

No Margaret Dumont, alas, but Sig Rumann is present and incorrect as Pfferman the German. He’s a Nazi-in-hiding with a giveaway scar on his head (I’m imagining an unfortunate encounter with the Inglourious Basterds) for which he requires the camouflage of a toupee. Harpo is set up as Rusty, his put-upon underling, a role that dates back to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and Thalberg’s unfortunate attempts to sentimentalize Harpo. Still, it means we can have lots of scenes of Sig being driven to apoplexy by Harpo and later the other brothers. And he keeps his clothes on this time. The sight of his genital cluster swaying within his long johns in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA will follow me to my mausoleum.

Sig comes complete with henchpersons, the oily Kurt and the seductive Bea. Kurt is ably played by actual German Frederick Giermann, and gets a decent sabre duel with Harpo. Giermann is one of countless fugitives from the Nazis who enjoyed a few boom years in Hollywood playing the guys he had fled. His career dries up not long after the war.

Bea is the excellent and lovely Lisette Verea, who seems to be genuinely having a ball, and is particularly good with Groucho. The nice girls in these films are always a bore, but the vamps are generally great value. Better, Verea gets to convert to the side of good, meaning she can get chased offscreen by the Bros at the end. This Romanian vixen was in just two films, the other being the 1933 version of THE GHOST TRAIN, which I bet is aces. ALL versions of THE GHOST TRAIN seem to be thoroughly entertaining.

Frank Tashlin worked on gags for this one, including Harpo’s first scene, leaning against a wall, getting moved on by a policeman (“Say, what do you think you are doing, holding up the building?”), at which point the full-sized building collapses. He may have also devised Groucho’s deleted entrance, in which his small desert hotel blows away in a sandstorm. The movie has obviously suffered quite a bit of this “tightening” — despite which Chico and Harpo’s musical numbers remain intact — numerous scenes fade-out in mid-action, or with characters opening their mouths to begin new quips. Who knows if there was gold in the lost footage? The remaining film has its longeurs, and the inelegance of the cutting does make me wonder if they snipped out the wrong bits.

Chief among the longeurs, of course, are the romantic leads, but the movie gives them short shrift, for which we can be grateful. Their names are Charles Drake and Lois Collier, and they can’t help themselves. And the script doesn’t exactly go out of its way to help them either. Of Mr. Drake, the IMDb says “No change in popularity this week,” which strikes me as beautifully apt. Collier had a much shorter career than her co-star, but most of her characters had names. This pair doesn’t get a lot of screen time — the movie actually seems to forget about them midway, and it’s a surprise when they crash back into the plot. And at least they don’t sing.

Lisette Verea does, briefly, and the number chosen, Who’s Sorry Now?, is a very good one, and it’s nice that it’s by Kalmar & Ruby, who wrote Hooray for Captain Spaulding! and Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, and who are the chief credited writers on DUCK SOUP.

Who else? Perennial bit player Paul Harvey plays Mr. Smythe, who can’t get a room in Groucho’s hotel without showing his marriage license. Mr. Harvey was born in Sandwich, Illinois, which makes me warm to him. Sig Rumann was a Hamburger — perhaps he would have bonded with the Sandwich man also.

There’s an extraordinary-looking thesp called David Hoffman as an Arab spy. And Dan Seymour as the Prefect of Police, his beard dismissed by Groucho as a terrible case of five O’clock shadow. And, we are told, Ruth Roman as a harem girl, but I failed to spot her.

The movie is a big step up from THE BIG STORE, it seems to me, and lets the Brothers be properly anarchic and only incidentally noble. Though the best bits of OPERA and RACES are up there with the best bits of anything else, I can’t help feel that the Marxes made a mistake, essentially, in signing with MGM — this movie liberates them from the Thalberg influence. The studio where they SHOULD have found a home, Warner Bros (the most brazenly Jewish, most leftie, most proletarian, and most casually vulgar studio) threatened to sue over the use of the word CASABLANCA in the title here. Groucho threatened to counter-sue over the use of their word BROTHERS.

Despite someone NEARLY saying “Round up the usual suspects” and a Groucho-Lisette riff on “You know how to whistle, don’t you?” from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, there’s little of Bogart here, though Groucho’s tent-like white jacket may be a clown version of Rick’s evening dress. A more actionable version could be imagined, with Groucho running a night club, Chico as a combined Dooley Wilson and Peter Lorre (“Sure I gotta the lettuce o’ transit!”) and Harpo as… hmm, not sure. Paul Henreid could play himself.

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The Dirty Half-Dozen

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 25, 2009 by dcairns

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Roger Corman’s THE SECRET INVASION is a clear fore-runner of Aldrich’s DIRTY DOZEN, dealing as it does with a crack elite squad of crack elite rogue maverick criminals on a top secret utmost importance type mission. For once working for a major studio (well, United Artists), Corman unfortunately wasn’t able to stress the cynical aspects that would make such a story most effective and original. (The best film of this type, and maybe the only really good one, is Andre de Toth’s PLAY DIRTY.)

Corman’s original title was THE DUBIOUS PATRIOTS, which I find endearingly weak. I suggest THE QUESTIONABLE HEROES and THE INSIPID MARTYRS as decent alternatives. Or maybe THE INGLOURIOUS SCAMPS.

The flick played at Edinburgh Film Fest’s Corman retro, and was introduced by Niall Fullton, who told how Corman conceived the story at the dentist — reading an article about the WWII battle of Dubrovnik, he dreamed up a war movie plot to distract him from the dentist’s uncomfortable ministrations (think LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS). UA money and Yugoslavian locations (with the partial cooperation of the local armed forces) enabled him to make his biggest film to date.

It’s enjoyable, but still has a somewhat cheap quality. Corman doesn’t pay that much attention to performance (the extras in particular are troublesome — there’s always one guy spoiling the mood by running into battle in a spazzy way, or pulling a strange expression during a crowd reaction shot) — and the production design isn’t fully up to the period movie challenge. The TV aerials on the rooftops didn’t bother me much, but the Nazi officer’s desk calendar for some reason seemed hilarious. It reads “1943:” That may be the funniest colon in film history.

When I wasn’t chuckling at the punctuation, I appreciated the deft use of stock footage (“Cairo” proclaims a proudly superimposed title, and it is Cairo) which Corman intercuts with the main characters’ introductions in a snappy way that actually achieves a sort of Oliver Stone liveliness, the different film stocks playing off each other. The day-for-night wasn’t so hot: underexposed evening shots set up a reasonably convincing facsimile of dusk, but then it becomes broad daylight for ten minutes before returning to dusk all of a sudden.

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Rooney, Byrnes, Campbell. The Dirty Trio.

Our heroes are —

MAJOR RICHARD MACE — Stewart Granger, boldly doing his own stunts and trying to steal other actors’ lines, causing a rare delay on a Corman shoot. Granger gives a horrible perf as the disgraced officer assigned to a suicide mission — everything is completely obvious and on-the-nose, which is especially problematic in a script as un-nuanced as this one. He’s not the most graceful actor either. The film is full of scenes where soldiers fail to take cover when they easily could, or run crouching behind low walls with their heads and shoulders sticking up into plain view.

ROBERT ROCCA – ORGANIZER — Raf Vallone gives the only really authoritative perf, nailing every line and exuding machismo and intelligence. His Rocca has degrees in psychology, Greek classics and structural engineering (Corman shares the latter qualification), none of which play any role in the story. But he is the guy who devises an escape plan in which all of the gang snap their fingers to maintain split-second timing in the absence of watches to synchronize. Of course, none of the actors snap at the same rate, and it turns out the timing was only relevant to allow them to all meet up in a corridor at approximately the same time. Still, nice thought.

TERENCE SCANLON – DEMOLITION — Mickey Rooney tests his well-known versatility by taking on the role of a feared IRA leprechaun. With the same dauntless courage he displayed as Mr. Yunioshi in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S — you can keep your Mifunes and Shimuras — he boldly plays the stage Oirish dialogue in an unmoderated American accent. But, one has to admit that his dancing training makes him a nimble and eye-catching physical player. He’s ridiculous, but with rare panache.

SIMON FELL – FORGER — Edd Byrnes is the handsome one, so it’s a surprising pleasure to see him die first. He essays the most histrionic, James Dean-like death, which is fine (Granger pulls off one of those nice life-leaving-the-eyes jobs in a pastoral setting). I was baffled by why the needed a forger, but they actually find stuff for him to do, stamping important Nazi documents with an artfully honed potato, and the like.

JOHN  DURRELL – ASSASSIN — Henry Silva once killed a man using only his cheekbones. And maimed a dog with his eyes. He’s well cast. “Of no known nationality,” Durrell is on death row for doing in his mistress. Nice to see that the professional hitman finds time for some pro bono work, I suppose. Silva gives a rubbish performance which, weirdly, isn’t quite inexpressive enough. And his romantic interest (!) is Spela Rozin, who projects even less emotion and seems more cold-blooded. Her credit, “And Introducing” practically guarantees her a lifetime of obscurity.

JEAN SAVAL – KNOWN AS “THE MASTER OF DISGUISE” — William Campbell is a very good too, a natural type with a great face and delivery. But unlikely casting as a man who can morph into anybody else, since he’s so distinctive-looking. A nice goofy moment is when he examines an unconscious Nazi guard so as to effect a transformation. “The key is the expression,” he intones. The expression of an unconscious man? Even if he can pull this off, aren’t the other Nazis going to wonder, “What’s Horst doing walking about unconscious on guard duty?” Campbell also does vocal impressions, by the simple method of being dubbed by whomever he choses to impersonate. It’s a handy skill!

Euphoria #15

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2008 by dcairns

My old cyber-mucker Benjamin “Lucan” Halligan unhesitatingly chose this extract from Michael Cimino’s film maudit HEAVEN’S GATE as his moment of Cinema Euphoria.

But I’m not sure exactly what it is in the scene that affects him so — he hasn’t spelled it out for me. Let’s not worry about it, and just enjoy Miss Huppert and Mr. Walken (who has a winning way with a hat) and sleepy Mr. Kristofferson and Cimino’s slow, methodical pacing and elliptical style, which so upset the suits at United Artists (along with his going MASSIVELY over budget, admittedly).

My favourite story in Stephen Bach’s exasperated account of the film’s making, Final Cut, is the one about how Cimino’s perfectionism would obey its own perverse rules. When ace producer Denis O’Dell’s first name was misspelled with two Ns in the film’s credits, Cimino refused to have the title re-done. I’m inclined to agree with MC here: Dennis should have two Ns, damnit!

O’Dell, who worked alongside John Lennon on HOW I WON THE WAR, is also name-checked on the song You Know My Name (Look Up The Number), a Goon Show style comedy song which is the B side of the last ever Beatles single. He is referred to on it as “Denis O’Bell.”

Better luck next time, Dennis!